Guns, Germs, and Steel | Study Guide

Jared Diamond

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Guns, Germs, and Steel | Part 3, Chapter 14 : From Food to Guns, Germs, and Steel (From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy) | Summary



Chapter 14 is a discussion of the types of human political organization and the rise of states as the dominant mechanism of social organization today. Along with diseases, literacy, and technology, the rise of states is "one of the four main sets of proximate agents" explaining global conquest.

To understand why and how states came about, Diamond employs an anthropological schema to look at types of human organization from the very smallest to the largest and most complex. At the small end of the spectrum are bands. Social bands are small groups of between 5 and 80 persons, often families. They lack many permanent institutions, tend to be egalitarian and informal, and are most commonly used in hunter-gatherer societies.

Another type is the tribe, a type of social organization slightly larger than the band at a few hundred individuals. A tribe can bring together several bands, typically around a village or some communal settlements. Tribal society is generally characterized by clans, family groups, and networks that intersect in settlements. Like bands, tribes share a rough egalitarianism and lack bureaucracy or other complex social institutions.

Next, Diamond describes the chiefdom, a type of more complex tribal society with greater social hierarchy, perhaps a social layer or two of bureaucracy or aristocracy, and many more people (as many as tens of thousands). The central problem chiefdoms sought to address, Diamond argues, was the question of social violence. Without the ties of band, clan, or tribe, how could people be prevented from killing one another? Diamond argues the answer was to give a social monopoly of violence to a chieftain who inhabited an elevated social position. Chiefs therefore distinguished themselves through class differences, with subjects paying tribute or supporting the social hierarchy in other ways.

Why would people tolerate this type of social organization, hierarchy, and division? Elites in hierarchical societies had a number of strategies. They could use violence to enforce rule. They could redistribute social tribute back toward the masses or keep the masses happy through authoritarian maintenance of order or safety. Alternatively, they could develop or use a social ideology such as a religion or belief system to justify the kleptocracy. A religion or cohesive ideology benefits a chiefdom in other ways, such as by providing social bonds beyond kin groups or by motivating sacrifice for a broader social order.

If these strategies sound familiar, it is because they are also used by modern states. In contemporary and ancient governance, the last level of social organization explored by Diamond, states of all types, even modern democracies, are similarly hierarchically organized, with information or other forms of social power remaining at the top. States differ from chiefdoms in their greater size, their economic specialization, and their more intensive and far-reaching involvement in and control of the mechanisms of social order. Social hierarchy is also typically greater, with more formalized laws and enforcement, and may involve slavery.

The general historical trend, then, is for the increase of size and scope of states over geographic and social areas. As chiefdoms become states, these states are absorbed into other states, which compete for resources and allegiance with other states, usually through violence or threat of violence. Diamond argues food production is at the heart of this development, as agriculture results in increased populations with greater specializations and opportunities as well as a greater need for social coordination and organization. These complex systems cannot be managed by bands or other small forms of social organization. When violence is the basis of state agglomeration, agriculture dramatically accelerates the process; a subject population, increasingly dependent on the state, can no longer simply flee.


Chapter 14 concludes the third section and provides the fourth proximate element of conquest: the role of the state. With this element, the four pieces of Part 3 come together: disease, literacy, technology, and states. Diamond has now concluded his general argument linking "proximate" causes of conquest with the "ultimate factors" of geography outlined in Part 2.

A fundamental topic in the discussion of states is the relationship between humans and violence. Diamond seems to take violent human interaction as a natural part of human relationships at two levels: on the micro level, as violence between individuals and bands as a justification for state formation, and on the macro level, as a fundamental part of state activities including conquest and "agglomeration." Although Diamond argues that states more efficiently and effectively wield violence over groups not similarly organized, he does not seem to interrogate the nature or the content of violence in human relations; rather, he assumes it to be a constant.

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